Saturday, June 9, 2012

And when you finally fly away, I'll be hoping that I served you well...For all the wisdom of a lifetime, no one can ever tell...And whatever road you choose, I'm right behind you win or lose, forever young

The end of the school year is at once exciting, uplifting and overwhelmingly sad. Maybe one day, when I've been teaching for ten or twenty or thirty years, I'll forget to be sad that another group of students has passed through my classroom doors for the last time. I hope that never happens, because despite the tight sensation in my heart and the tears that prick the backs of my eyes, I am grateful to know that I connected with my students, and that I will miss them. It is a teacher's greatest accomplishment, I believe, to know that there are also some kids that will miss their time sitting in those now empty desks.

This year my first group of seniors graduated. Some of them were my students last year, some this year, but as a whole, they are a group that I will never forget. My inaugural class, in a way. Since I have been at Alternative Ed, I have met a multitude of different personalities: angry, depressed, manically happy. Regardless of their insecurities, attitudes and the days that I thought that I would never get through to them, I have loved them each individually.

These days there is a stigma attached to a teacher's love for his or her students. In my mind, this fact is one of the greatest downfalls of today's culture. It is a little pinprick on my conscience every day, this knowledge that because I am a young, female high school teacher, I will be scrutinized and ridiculed for caring "too much" about my students. It's unfortunate that the mistakes and bad judgment of a few will forever color student-teacher relationships.

Regardless, I have never hesitated to express my dedication to the welfare of my students. Ask anyone who talks to me even once a week and they'll be able to tell you that although I have been frustrated, angry and at times a little hysterical regarding my job, at the end of the day I wouldn't trade my kids for anything. There were several moments in the past year when students asked me "You hate us, don't you?" My response was always the same, "Of course not, I lecture you because I love you guys." Sometimes a child needs that reassurance, that unconditional devotion that they are sometimes missing at home. Even in my most desperate, self pitying moments, that answer was always true.

My students are the underdogs in every sense of the word. They are the ones cast out by their "normal, rule-following" peers and tossed in with the other kids "like them" on the island of misfit toys that is Alternative Ed. This year I had the opportunity to witness how teachers cope with these students, and I was saddened to see that in some cases, not only was the love not evident, it wasn't there at all. It is a tragedy that in a place where students, especially the most frustrating and unruly, need to see that love, it wasn't freely given. Love is the most simple gift to give, after all.

I won't pretend that loving my students is easy, in fact it can be the most draining, profanity-worthy process. Even so, I would do it again, day after day after day. Actually, I intend to do so for the rest of my career. Just little acts of caring, a hand on the shoulder, the gift of a sketchbook, a note of encouragement, have the potential to turn things around for kids. In a larger sense, this is true of all people, not just those in school. These  little things are reminders that every moment counts because every moment is an opportunity for someone to chart a different course. 

That course led my inaugural seniors across the stage yesterday, and I have never been more proud of any group of people in my (rather short) life. As I watched them process in, in their white and red caps and gowns, I felt more like a parent than a teacher, because in many ways, some of those kids were my babies. We laughed together, wrangled a wayward dog together (long story) and on more than one occasion, I let them cry on my shoulder. I helped to show them what it means to be good people, and although sometimes they may forget it, they have proven themselves to be good-hearted, capable young adults.

One of my students was the valedictorian, which was the culmination of a year of hard work, perseverance and near perfect attendance. Considering this was a kid who came to us believing that he would be kicked out of school completely before he was eighteen, his accomplishments really can't be understated. On Back-to-School night at the beginning of the year, he told me that he would have straight A's and speak at graduation, and he did that. I know that he exceeded even his own expectations, and he will be a fine asset to the Navy's Nuclear Engineering program.

Another of my boys pretended that he didn't care about graduation, but when he was finished with the ceremony, there were tears in his eyes. I know, and I believe that he does too, that he is capable of anything he sets his mind to. I said goodbye to a girl that is bright, kind and funny, and I hope that she realizes all of her dreams. I hope too that she remembers to never let the opinions of others tarnish her opinion of herself. Finally, I was able to congratulate one of the nicest, quietest, most respectful students that I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. He was in night school, and his quiet dedication and positive attitude are inspiring. I hope that he never loses those qualities.

People ask me why I teach, and especially why I have chosen to spend time at Alternative Ed when I could have made more money simply substituting. My answer varies, depending on when they ask, but in my heart it's always the same: I teach because my students teach me. I teach because I love to give a part of myself to the education of others, and I teach because I find inspiration in every day spent in the company of my kids. The end of the year is exciting, uplifting and overwhelmingly sad, but I wouldn't trade the moments that led up to it for anything.

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